Why This Matters:
The Importance of Engagement as Time Goes On
“Never Forget.” It’s what they say – but I don’t only want to remember the things I am told to remember in books and movies and museums.
I want to engage with this history, rather than simply read what information has been provided to me in school.
I want to learn from my grandparents' unique experiences and the experiences of others, rather than simply consume what has been carefully curated by the Holocaust museums of the world.
I want to understand the geopolitical nuances that made this terrible event possible, rather than reduce my understanding to the evil Nazis versus the victimized Jews.
In her analysis of Holocaust representations titled The Comforting Power of Kitsch, Aleksandra Ubertowska notes how popular Holocaust representations (texts like Schindler’s List) are much like “kitsch” (a concept often marked as “cheap” art for the masses). Holocaust representations, she explains, “make the receiver react spontaneously and [do] not allow him to remain indifferent towards the artistic event which he is participating in” (157). Movies like Spielberg’s or books like Wiesel’s (rightfully) evoke certain emotional responses from their participants. At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, guests are given a survivor’s story and shown how to move through his or her life during the Holocaust. As active participants in all of these texts, we are invited to walk in the shoes of a Holocaust prisoner, to feel how they felt, to see what they saw. The sadness and anger and fear we feel when experiencing these texts are authentic; but these representations cannot truly be “received with speculation, with a reflective distance” (158). On the contrary, these representations evoke in us a distinct and deliberately-designed emotional response.
I have always been deeply moved by the Holocaust representations I have encountered. I devoured Anne Frank’s diary as a little girl, and still think about her story to this day. I wept when I watched Schindler’s List and The Devil’s Arithmetic and The Pianist; wept with genuine outrage and emotion. I felt Eli Wiesel’s narrative so deeply and authentically when I read (and re-read) his autobiographical tale, Night. I stood, frozen in place, stunned by the amassed pile of prisoners' shoes on display at Yad Vashem in Israel. I am thankful for the fact that the Holocaust is a large and important part of our contemporary consciousness (as evidenced by the abundance of Holocaust movies and books still being written; by the Holocaust memorial sites located everywhere from New Orleans, Louisiana to Ann Arbor, Michigan; by the fact that the United States government has a Museum in Washington, DC dedicated to the Holocaust; by my AP US History class, that covered so much of the history of the Holocaust in Europe despite it’s near total irrelevance to American history until 1945). These representations have been an important part of my education and my maturation into the person I am today, but they are limited.
At what point do these texts make us passive receptors rather than active participants? At what point do they become devoid of true meaning? At what point do we become automated in our emotional response to images of crematoriums and barbed-wire fences and piles of discarded shoes?
Despite all of the good that they provide, Holocaust representations are just that: representations. They are a reductive stand-in for the real thing, and each individual text simply does not have the capacity to synthesize all of the complex and nuanced information about the Holocaust. Instead, these representations allow a glimpse into one very important thing: real, human emotions.
In order to truly preserve the memory of what happened in Europe in the 1930s and 40s, my generation needs to be wary of representations. We all know that the Holocaust was a tragedy nearly unfathomable in scale, but we need to remember that a film or book can only show us so much; that a museum has a curator who has carefully chosen to display some things and not others; that “remembering” may require more than passively receiving the texts presented to us.
My grandparents’ stories are heartbreaking and scary and hard to grasp as part of our reality, but they are real. And complex. And often shocking, in ways that push against my preconceptions about what really happened then, only three generations ago. My biggest fear is that, as time continues onward, we as a society will develop an automated response to the word Holocaust, to the image of a flickering candle, to the Holocaust iconography that has been developed since 1945. And maybe we already have. This important history can all-too-quickly be reduced to a high school student’s flashcard, with words like “Nazi” and “concentration camp” and “liberation,” and places like Germany and Poland and Russia, becoming empty shells, devoid of real meaning beyond our premeditated emotional response.
Remember that a representation cannot stand in for the whole of millions of peoples’ experience. Remember that some Germans were good and some Jews were bad. Remember that Jewish people in Europe were also Polish and Ukrainian and German and Dutch and French, too. Remember that there is more to this story than the images that have become mere icons. Remember that this piece of history affected real people with real lives and real dreams – not just characters in movies or numbers in history books. Remember that they were my grandparents, my dad's parents, and that the nightmare that they lived was more complex than a movie or book or museum could ever show.
Remember my grandparents’ stories, and ensure that we truly never will forget the individuals, survivors, and victims who experienced this nightmare.